No thanks to the Fed
Everyone's been waiting to see what the central bank will do next. The minutes from the last meeting aren't much help.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - The minutes from the most recent Federal Reserve meeting don't clear up a heckuva lot.
On the one hand, the minutes show that the Fed policy-makers finished their May 10 meeting unclear whether the rate hike announced that day would be the central bank's last.
"Committee members were uncertain about how much, if any, further tightening would be needed after today's action," read the minutes, released Wednesday.
There was also a lot of discussion of rising inflationary pressure, while at the same time the central bankers weighed whether the slowdown in economic growth expected ahead could keep price increases from getting out of hand.
"Members debated the appropriate characterization of inflation expectations in the statement," said the minutes. "It appeared appropriate to characterize inflation expectations again as 'contained'."
And that mixed message is just what the markets don't need right now, said Rich Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research.
"Over the last four months we've received nothing but mixed signals and uncertainty from the Bernanke Fed," said Yamarone, referring to the tenure of new Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke. "I don't know how much more uncertainty the Street is going to take from its central bank."
Yamarone said he believes the Fed will hike the fed funds rate, its key short term interest rate target, to 5.25 percent in June, which would be the 17th straight quarter-percentage point hike in the last two years. Nothing in the minutes suggested anything different to him.
But he said more than the minutes, economic reports over the next month will determine what happens when Fed policy-makers next meet at the end of June. And he thinks investors will be looking for any signs of inflation in those reports, starting with Friday's widely awaited report on job growth last month.
Economists surveyed by Briefing.com are forecasting employers added 170,000 jobs to payrolls in May after a weaker than expected 138,000 April gain. The unemployment rate is forecast to remain at 4.7 percent, but a growing number of economists are saying a drop to 4.6 percent is likely. And average hourly wages, which posted an unexpectedly strong 0.5 percent rise in April, are expected to rise a more modest 0.3 percent.
"I think the markets will focus on whatever the inflationary signal is Friday," Yamarone said. "The Fed has to consider the worst-case scenario when it's tackling inflation and the markets know that."
But David Wyss, chief economist with Standard & Poor's, said he's still expecting the Fed to hold off in June, although he now thinks it's a bit more likely there will be one more rate hike at a subsequent meeting.
"The thing that strikes you number one [about the minutes] is they are worried about inflation," said Wyss. "At the same time they are talking about the expected cooling of the economy. I think it's going to be a race between how quickly inflation heats up and how quickly the economy cools off."
Drew Matus, senior economist at Lehman Brothers, disagrees. He's expecting two more rate hikes, including one at the next meeting. And Matus isn't alone. More investors seem to be expecting at least one more increase now that the minutes are out.
According to fed funds futures contracts on the Chicago Board of Trade, investors Wednesday afternoon were betting on a 76 percent chance of a quarter-point hike when the Fed meets in late June, up from a 58 percent chance on Tuesday.
But Matus also said the minutes do suggest that the Fed was looking at a way to pause in June when the central bankers met on May 10.
"I thought this came across as emphasizing the pause," said Matus. "Most of the commentary about concerns about inflation was balanced by commentary about growth. But since the time of the minutes, the game has changed and the inflation outlook is worse than when they were writing these minutes."
End to rate hikes could end rally. Full story.
Full text of the minutes. Click here.
Special report, "Eyes on the Fed." More here.